Joseph E. Yoakum
756 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, IL 60622
Ride that Milwaukee train on down to the bright neon green portico of Intuit for this comfortably sized grouping of pencil and ballpoint pen drawings on craft paper by self-taught artist Joseph Yoakum (pronounced Yoke-em).
The exhibition was curated by Mark Pascale, Associate Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, and somewhat of a Yoakum scholar, so if you slept in and missed his excellent early Saturday morning lecture last weekend, be sure to peruse, or purchase, the catalog created for the exhibition, which is available in the gift shop for a mere ten bucks.
Born in 1890 in Green County, Missouri to parents of African-American and Cherokee heritage, Yoakum joined the Great Wallace Circus when he was just a boy of nine. This was the beginning of his cross-country caroming, which eventually took him across the world, working for various and sundry circus acts. It wasn’t until he was seventy years old that he began drawing, from memory, his signature landscapes, depicting the places he’d been to over the past decades in his unique, patterned style, the creative process of which he described as “spiritual enfoldment.”
This is certainly the way one might feel when viewing them, as cliffs and meadows undulate with repetitive geometric abstractions, and glowing, blended bands of color, created by smudging pastel chalk dust onto the page, rise like steam from the tops of cliffs and sheer rock faces off into the horizon.
A master of presenting viewers with both a frenetic, sweeping visit that, simultaneously, contains smaller, discrete pockets of intense design, Yoakum’s exceptional double line was just one of the many elements that Chicago artists such as Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson admired and imitated. Both Nutt and Nilsson developed a friendship with Yoakum, eventually acting as somewhat of his agents, along with their professors, Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida, who were his principal exponents.
Although typically presenting elements in his landscape in a frontal organization, without a clear vanishing point, Yoakum also adopted an almost oriental-style of stacking elements in space: creating tiers of grass, then tress, then water, then roadways, then mountains, in an upwards progression across the page.
Each drawing, of a real or imagined landscape, is meticulously labeled in Yoakum’s loopy and crowded script. Reports of an atlas on hand in his studio explain how each location is correctly spelled, despite most of the rest of his phonetically created words, but the multiple locations of each drawing is often assigned and is perhaps a little more puzzling. Like the carbon copies he frequently made of elements in his landscapes, saved up and stored for use in other drawings to come, Yoakum’s incredible lived experience and incredible shared experience, as evidenced by his over 2000 drawings, are jam-packed with both the beautiful and the beguiling.
A film series presenting works on the circus and the African-American experience will be screened at Intuit to accompany this exhibition. Please click here for the schedule of screenings.
--Thea Liberty Nichols